2004 Florida Folk Heritage Award
In the world of classical and flamenco guitars, Manuel Velazquez (Winter Garden) is one of the most renowned living luthiers. His maternal grandfather, Justo Hemandez, was a fine cabinetmaker who came to Puerto Rico from Spain. As a boy in Puerto Rico, Velazquez watched as his older brother Ofelio—also a cabinetmaker—learned to make guitars largely through correspondence with an uncle who was a well-known luthier in Spain. After Ofelio’s early death, Velazquez, who loved guitars, dedicated his life to making them as a tribute to his brother.
The conductor Jorge Rubiano encouraged Velazquez to become a professional luthier and move to the U.S. to seek greater opportunities. Velazquez moved to New York in 1941, and soon found work as a cabinetmaker in the federal shipyards. He continued to work on guitars at night, then after the war he opened his own workshop. Over time, Velazquez’ reputation and business grew. His guitars were widely considered to be impeccably crafted instruments with warm, clear tones. In 1962, he returned to Puerto Rico and expanded his production under the sponsorship of a government agency. He moved again to New York, Puerto Rico, and then Arlington, Virginia before settling in the Sunshine State in 1992.
Velazquez builds both classical and flamenco guitars, which are very similar. One of the differences is that flamenco guitars are built with thinner wood, such as white Spanish cedar, and with wooden friction tuning pegs. Velazquez is honored that his guitars have been purchased by some of the greatest flamenco players, including the legendary Spanish gypsy Sabicas. Velazquez also has tried his hand at building a variety of other stringed instruments, including lutes, violins, and vihuelas.
In building guitars, Velazquez notes, “Everything is traditional.” He maintains traditional depth, shape and bracing, and the Spanish heel pattern. Despite reliance on time-tested knowledge, he continues to strive for greater perfection. Although individual guitars vary in the type of sound Velazquez tries to produce, many people perceive their sound quality as harp-like, clean and colorful. Velazquez employs a combination of woods in each guitar to fulfill the needs of the different parts. For a recent guitar, he created the back and sides of Brazilian rosewood, the neck of Honduras mahogany, the fingerboard of ebony, and the bridge of Brazilian rosewood. The soundboard, or top, is the most critical part of the instrument, and Velazquez often selects European spruce—which has a brighter sound than American spruce. The instruments are carefully finished with a hand-rubbed varnish on the neck, back and sides, and a traditional French polish on the top.
During his long and respected career, Velazquez has been the focus of articles in many books, magazines and newspapers throughout the world. Guitar connoisseurs praise his work in the highest terms and some consider him the best guitar maker today. Such well-known musicians as classical guitarists Pepe Romero, Rey de la Torre, Andrés Segovia, Julian Bream and Ichiro Suzuki and popular musicians Harry Belafonte, Paul Simon, Keith Richards, Earl Klugh, and many others own or have played his guitars. Today Velazquez continues to work daily in his small studio, lovingly crafting about six or eight fine guitars each year. He has passed on his knowledge to his son Alfredo, a full-time luthier, and daughter Graciela so that the Velazquez legacy will endure.